Manar el-Sheikh | 20-11-2018
A teenaged girl carried a camera as she approached the field by the border to photograph protesters in Gaza’s Great Return March. She gathered her hair with a red tie and began to run, surrounded by the smoke of burning tires, heading toward the two young men about to scale the fence. She was intent only on capturing the scene in a photo. It was like something out of a Hollywood movie, with the heroine conquering her fear to follow her dreams and serve her people.
The heroine of this story is Menna Murad Qudiah, 14, a girl with deep brown eyes and smooth, rosy skin. She lives in Khuza'a—the site of one of the worst attacks of the 2014 Israeli war against Gaza—and is the youngest journalist to report on the historic, nonviolent protest calling for the right of Palestinians to return to their ancestral homeland.
Menna’s main love is photography, thanks to her Uncle Ihab, a journalist who allowed her to experiment with his camera when she was just 4 years old. But she has many talents:fashion design, poetry recitation, acting and playing piano. Menna is a born performer: She played in a piano recital at the Al-Qattan Center in Gaza City, and her Uncle Ihab filmed her as she sang and recited patriotic poems on the roof of her home during the 2014 Israeli assault. Her deep, yet soft, voice was interrupted by the sound of missiles and raids, but she never stopped singing.
Launch of the Great Return March
Menna was eager to participate as soon as word of the Great Return March spread, and she smiles broadly as she recalls how she couldn't sleep the night before the first day of the protest, almost as if she was about to go on a school trip. She wasn’t afraid, she says; she was excited. She was a regular participant after that, attending with members of her family: her father, brothers, sometimes her grandfather—and, of course, Uncle Ihab.
An editor for a Saudi Arabian newspaper and a member of the International Federation of Journalists, Ihab long acted as a mentor to Menna. Because he believes in her flair for photography, he lends her his own camera. Her father also is faithful supporter. Even though he does not receive his salary for months at a time, he pays for her to take workshops in journalism.
Detecting that I was wondering about the effect of the protests on her studies, Menna raised her right eyebrow and shook her index finger, admonishing, “Don't worry; I won first place in a contest sponsored by the Ministry of Education for beginning broadcasters.” And then there was a challenge by her history teacher: He asked her to answer three difficult questions, and she answered them all. She turned her room upside down searching for her school schedule to show me. And like any normal early teen, she had decorated it with Hello Kitty stickers.
Tragedy up close
One day at the protest, Menna inhaled tear gas, causing her eyes, nose and throat to sting and swell. A volunteer paramedic, 21-year-old Razan al-Najjar, rushed to her aid. Later, Menna learned that Razan had been shot by an Israeli sniper while coming to the aid of a protester.
And then there was Yasser Murtaja. It was the morning of April 4 when Menna met Murtaja, a well-known and loved journalist covering the protests. He kindly let her look into the lens of his very sophisticated camera and showed her how to use it. When Menna showed him her own photos of the protesters, he raised his eyebrows in appreciation, and said her work was equal to those of professional photographers. Then, he suggested making a film about her youthful skill and bravery. When she heard his words, her heart soared.
On the day they were scheduled to shoot the short film, Menna told Yasser she needed to finish early because she had homework to do. He smiled and said, "Your camera and your books will scare the soldiers more than any weapons, so do your homework." Instead, he filmed her as she completed her assignments. Sadly, however, the documentary had to be completed by other crew members from the Ain Media Production Company, where Yasser worked. Yasser was shot by an Israeli sniper while covering the second Friday of the Great Return March—a wound that resulted in his death on April 6. He left behind his son, many friends—and his camera. Her mother told me Menna couldn't cry in front of her father and brothers;instead, when she heard the news, she escaped to her room to sob.
Her emotions were still raw when her teacher criticized Murtaja in class because she thought he had not worn a protective vest. Menna raised her hand to speak and corrected the teacher, insisting that he indeed wore his flak jacket. Her teacher challenged her, asking, "How do you know?" Menna replied that she went to the protest daily and was in fact the youngest journalist covering the Great Return March. The entire class, including the teacher, laughed at her in disbelief. Menna left the class in tears.
This incident at first made Menna feel like giving up. But she knew if she didn’t believe in herself, no one else would. She remembered Yasser playing the funny clown, snatching her camera and then fleeing. She remembered the ululating call of the men when they dragged down the barbed-wire fence that penned her people in. She recalled her interview with an old, Bedouin woman, who had been born in Bir al-Saba and forcibly displaced by Israeli gangs in 1948, forcing her to live in Gaza's camps. She had promised this old woman to keep smiling, because a smile is a gesture of defiance, telling Israeli snipers they won’t defeat the Palestinians of Gaza.
Menna believes in the saying, "Success is a simple measurement of the commitment, sacrifice and pain one endures to achieve a dream." So, she continues to work toward her dream of becoming a professional journalist. She now works for an online radio station in Khan Younis, saving money to buy her own camera.
And when Menna met the old, Bedouin woman once again, the first thing she did was to hug her and say, "Thank you for saving me.”
Posted: November 19, 2018
Mentor: Deborah Root